Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Help! Playlist

My thoughts have a way of running away from me. Though I like to think of myself as generally even-keeled, there are moments when I'm suddenly sucked into a cesspool of anxiety, self-pity, or resentment. I try to speak sense to myself, but sometimes my emotions' case seems watertight.

The thing is, I know intellectually that the lies I'm believing in those moments are just that - lies - even if there's a valid reason to be sad or disappointed or uncertain. I don't need my thoughts stuck on replay, looping and snowballing around the offending event or situation. I need to shift my attention to a bigger story. But at times, I need help to do so.

That's why I made this Help! playlist last fall. I compiled the songs that have most frequently reminded me, "This thing that's bothering you? It is NOT the whole story." In the moments when I'm gripped by negativity, these songs come in and say, "Hey, step outside with me. Let's get some fresh air." They're not all happy - some are laments, like Enter the Worship Circle's "Never Again." But instead of indulging in despair, they remind me to lay my concerns before my Almighty God.

It's gotten a lot of playtime lately. Sometimes when I'm studying, I put on the playlist preemptively to let truth flow through my thoughts. That was the case one night last week when I got a phone call out of the blue that threw me into an emotional whirlwind. After talking with this person and trying to encourage her, I came back to my laptop and resumed listening, still feeling shaken. It was in the middle of Kari Jobe's "Come to Me." I realized the effect it'd had in preparing me to be a calm presence for this caller. I instantly shared the link to it with her.

Nearly all these songs have words. The instrumental exception, "From the Ground Up," is from a soundtrack I love, "Many Beautiful Things," by Sleeping at Last. The true story told in the documentary - of an English woman who gives up a blossoming art career to serve God in North Africa - fits beautifully with this intricate, hopeful piece. I love the whole album, especially as study music, but this is my favorite track. It's the kind of song I'd consider walking down the aisle to, but because the film is about a single missionary, I know I don't have to wait for a wedding to appropriate this song for myself.

A few months ago, I searched for Sleeping at Last on YouTube and realized that in their original form, the soundtrack songs actually had vocals. I like the originals too, but they almost feel like meeting the child or spouse of a dear friend - a wonderful addition, and it's fun to watch them interact, but they rob some intimacy from the conversation. They're not about to join this playlist.

Here's a sampling from my Help! playlist. (When I had multiple songs by one artist, I just picked my favorite.) What songs would be on yours?

All Sons and Daughters - Oh How I Need You
Andrew Peterson - In the Night My Hope Lives On
Audrey Assad - I Shall Not Want
Casting Crowns - Who Am I
Enter the Worship Circle - Never Again
Fernando Ortega - Give Me Jesus
Gungor - Higher
Jadon Lavik - Take My Life
Jars of Clay - Thou Lovely Source of True Delight
Jeremy Riddle - Surrendered in Praise
Jon Foreman - The House of God Forever
Josh Garrels - Farther Along
Kari Jobe - Come to Me
Keith and Kristyn Getty - Still, My Soul, Be Still
Kristian Stanfill - Jesus Paid It All
Rend Collective - Immeasurably More
Rich Mullins - That Where I Am
Sara Groves - When the Saints
Sleeping at Last - From the Ground Up
Sovereign Grace - I Come Running

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crazy about Cambodia? On honor, shame, and comfort zones

This post is adapted from a talk I gave at my church this month.

When people hear that I’ve spent 6 years in Cambodia and I plan to move back, they often say, “Wow, you must really love it.” 

And it’s true, I do really love it… most of the time. I loved teaching English and French at an international Christian school when I was there before, and I am excited to return this fall to disciple and train Cambodian teachers. In fact, I want to go deeper. I’m going to be leaving the international school, where I could speak English and have lots of American colleagues, to focus on working with Cambodians in their own language and culture.

But the other side of the story is, Cambodia is also way outside my comfort zone. After 6 years, there are still things I just don’t get about Cambodian culture. Some days I feel like Cambodia will never truly be my home. And I expected that discomfort before I ever got there, knowing that Cambodia is in Southeast Asia, on the other side of the world.

I didn’t go to Cambodia because I thought I would be crazy about it. I went because I knew that God is crazy about Cambodia. He made Cambodians in His image, and He’s bringing Cambodians to Himself in some amazing ways. One thing I really do love about life in Cambodia, though, is that leaving my comfort zone and exploring another culture has helped me to better understand the world, myself, and God.

Everyone likes stories, right? Let me share with you a few stories of things that have confused or frustrated me:
  • Some parents at my old school didn’t let their daughters play team sports because they worried their girls might be injured and end up with a scar. So? Why should the threat of a little white line on her knee keep her from joining her friends on the soccer field? 
  • Often when I got lost and stopped to ask people for directions, they would smile and say sure, but then they would tell me the wrong way to go. I’d end up even more lost than before. Is that their twisted sense of humor?
  • When I mentored public school teachers last summer, I asked one of them if he was free to meet at 9 and he said he was. Then at 9:30 he told me, “By the way, I should probably go teach my class. It started at 9.” Wait, you left students alone in the classroom for half an hour? Why didn’t you just tell me you were busy?
The key to understanding these incidents is the idea of honor and shame, which I've recently started learning about. Honor and shame are a big deal in Cambodia and much of the world, and missionaries are realizing that this truth has powerful implications for how we share the Gospel in these cultures. This 5-minute video explains it better than I can.


Can you see now how honor and shame help explain those frustrating incidents?
  • Parents didn’t want their girls to bear a scar because a scar would detract from the honor of their daughter, and by extension, their whole family. You may remember the song in the Disney movie Mulan, “You’ll bring honor to us all."
  •  The strangers giving directions lied about which way to go because they didn’t know either. They didn’t want to disappoint me or embarrass themselves by admitting their ignorance, so they tried to tell me no in a subtle, indirect way… but this dumb American missed the hint. I still don’t always recognize the difference between a confident, happy smile meaning "yes" and an awkward, hesitant smile meaning "probably not." 
  • The teacher started class half an hour late so he wouldn’t rush me as an experienced, knowledgeable teacher who was there to help him. He was showing respect and honor for me and what I had to say by giving me his attention. As mentioned in the video, he prioritized the event (my visit) over the time (for class to start).

The work and frustration of adjusting to Cambodians’ worldview has benefited me in the US too. For example, I’m currently getting a master’s degree at Lehigh University. Thinking about honor and shame has helped me build stronger friendships with international classmates. There are many people right here in Pennsylvania who see the world primarily in terms of honor and shame. In fact, honor is a value for most Americans, even if it may be much farther down the totem pole.

Living in an honor-shame culture has expanded my view of God, because God is not only the God of America but the God of all nations. The Gospel is about justice, about how God sent his innocent son to die for us guilty humans to right all our wrongs and take away our punishment. But for someone in Cambodia, where corruption reigns and judges decide cases based on connections and bribes, descriptions of God as our judge don't always resonate. What's cool is that the Gospel isn't only about justice. It’s also about honor, about how God sent his glorious son to die the most shameful death, naked on a cross in front of everyone, to accept us, the outcasts, and bring us into His royal family. The message of Christ is simple enough for children to grasp – “Jesus died for me” – and yet we can spend a lifetime contemplating it without seeing all its facets.

We Christians have been entrusted with a truth that sets prisoners free and brings the dead to life. It would be so selfish to hoard that truth for ourselves, our families, and our closest friends. Just like we steward our money, we’re called to steward the truth, by displaying it in our words and our actions every chance we get. Evangelism isn’t an annual event that the church staff coordinates; it’s a lifestyle that all Christ-followers are called to pursue daily. 

So I want to challenge you likewise to leave your comfort zone and love people who are not like you. If you’re not inclined to take a 24-hour plane trip to Cambodia, why don’t you look outside your front door? I bet you have neighbors who strongly disagree with your views on nutrition, money, and politics. At your workplace, there may be people with disabilities, addictions, and family difficulties you’ve never experienced. There are people in Doylestown who have other skin colors, who speak other languages, who are Hindu and Mormon and atheist and Muslim.

We’re a diverse nation. But you know what? So is the family of God. Jesus didn’t love people because they shared His tastes and his background. He loved people because they bore God’s image, and because they desperately needed Him, and because God is love.

Pastor Ronaldo recently preached on Colossians 3:11. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” When we get to heaven, we’re going to share eternity with people from all these backgrounds and many more. And in our incredible diversity we’ll have incredible unity in loving the One who called us all out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

If you’re worried that you can’t love people like Jesus loves them, you’re right. I’ve tried to do it on my own and maybe you have too. It's exhausting. But the value of leaving our comfort zone and loving people who are different from us is simple:

When we risk needing more of God, 
we end up SEEING more of God. 

Only God’s Spirit in us can empower us to love people the way God loves them. Even when they’re different from us. Even when loving them doesn’t come easily.

Who is that neighbor...
                                           that colleague...
                                                                         that parent of your child’s friend... 
who’s outside your comfort zone? 

Are you praying for eyes to see God’s image stamped on him or her? 

Are you starting conversations even when you’re not sure what to say? 
Are you pressing through the awkwardness, 
            inviting them to share stories and time and meals? 
Are you asking the Holy Spirit to fill you with His love and power? 

God is crazy about all kinds of people because He made them. And when we draw near to Him, that love is contagious.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Culture Map and international feedback

I recently read Erin Meyer's The Culture Map, a fascinating look at how various global cultures handle similar business situations in different ways. Meyer consults with firms to help them sort out challenges that stem from cross-national teams or clients. While I'm not a businessperson, it's absolutely relevant to my study-abroad experiences and my work in missions/nonprofits. It's an easy read but rich in food for thought and conversation. A few points were review for me, such as linear versus flexible time scheduling, but I was surprised by how much of the content I'd never seen in other books on culture.

Meyer's basic premise is that a spectrum exists for eight scales, such as Trusting, Scheduling, and Disagreeing. For example, on the Evaluating scale, the spectrum ranges from valuing direct negative feedback to indirect negative feedback. Every culture is filled with individuals on a sort of bell curve for each scale, but the mid-point of each culture's bell curve, what's considered "normal" in that culture, will fall in a specific place on the scale. 

In evaluation, cultures like Russia, Israel, and France tend to practice direct negative feedback. They might use upgraders to emphasize their point: "This proposal is completely inappropriate for our company's needs!" The US and Argentina are more in the middle and often use downgraders to soften statements: "This proposal is not quite what we are looking for." Japan and Thailand strongly favor indirect negative feedback and shroud unpleasant messages in politeness to avoid embarrassing the offending party. None of them are right or wrong - just different.

When cultures collide, meaning can be tricky to decipher even when the words are understood. Thus, there is a risk of conflict and stymied work. Without adequately considering culture, it may seem like a problem with the individual. Meyer writes of a French employee and an American boss. The employee thought her boss was delighted with her. "He just gushed in my performance review a couple months ago! He barely mentioned anything I need to work on." Meanwhile, the boss was frustrated. "She's capable of great work. But I told her several specific changes to make, and she's ignored them. Her response is unacceptable."

The problem? The boss was using the classic American "sandwich method": precede and follow every bit of negative feedback with a compliment. He was also softening the negatives with downgraders. The French woman, used to employers who are stingy with praise and open with critiques, almost missed the constructive criticism. She was later shocked to learn how close she'd come to losing her job. Once she knew how to interpret his feedback, they got along great.

This anecdote reminded me of several incidents in my personal experience. When I studied abroad in France, I learned that French schools grade most assignments and courses on a scale from 1 (worst) to 20 (best), but it's challenging to earn a 14 and nearly impossible to get anything higher than that. 14 and up is the equivalent of an A in the US, even though 14/20 = 70%, or an American C-. 

My French host mother was disgusted one day when her son in university received an assignment back. "The professor wrote 'Unimprovable' and gave it a 14. What's the point of having the scores of 15-20 if you never use them even for a perfect paper?" Likewise, teachers don't say things like "Great job" unless they are seriously impressed, and they're not shy about saying, "That was terrible." Knowing that helped me to adjust my expectations for the grades and feedback I would receive that semester at the local university.

Teachers in France don't go through quite as many of these stickers.

During our first year in Cambodia, a Scottish colleague adapted easily to Cambodian culture but found our North American colleagues a challenge at first. She was exasperated a few times over comments from the Canadian principals. "I spent a couple hours trying various arrangements for my classroom. When they came in and saw me working on it, they told me to try it a completely different way. Don't they trust me? How can they tell me what to do when they've spent one minute thinking about it and I've spent most of the morning?"

It soon became clear to me that they'd heard her express doubt that she'd found the best way, and they'd tried to encourage her by brainstorming new ideas. "What if you tried it this way?" But what sounded to my American ears like a casual suggestion was translating to her as a Command from the Chief, a condemnation of her current approach. Typical of her native land, she had a habit of verbally downplaying her confidence in her own ideas, even when she'd invested a lot in them and was actually pretty close to a final decision. She was reading a lot more weight into the principals' suggestions than they intended, and it left her feeling micro-managed. Obviously personality was also a component: they were easygoing and thick-skinned, even for North American culture, whereas she was careful to avoid stepping on others' toes, even by Scottish standards. She gradually learned to take their comments with a grain of salt - and I learned through our chats to think twice about my words before offering her advice or ideas.

Where was this when we needed it?

If Scottish people tend to be less direct about criticism than Americans, Cambodian culture is far more subtle even than Scotland. My housemates and I used to schedule occasional meetings with our house helper, since she usually came while we were working and we rarely saw her. One meeting came shortly after an incident involving a necklace that had gone missing for a week before mysteriously reappearing; she wasn't the only potential culprit, so we let it go. At the meeting, we said that we weren't ready to give her the raise she'd requested because she had been slipping on several tasks. We gave a few examples: bathroom mirrors hadn't been cleaned in a few weeks, her sweeping and mopping didn't reach the corners, etc. We asked her to improve her performance in those areas. She was pretty quiet. That evening, she texted us to say that after about eight years of working for us and/or previous residents of our home, she was resigning. We were dismayed. We had no desire to look for someone new, and we knew she'd been happy with us until that point.

We called a Cambodian friend to help us navigate. She explained that our forthright criticism and the presence of all five housemates at the meeting would have felt very intimidating to our helper. She probably feared we were about to fire her unless she took our hint and resigned to save face with her family and friends. Once we called her back and explained that her position was in no danger, our helper was relieved and immediately rescinded her resignation.

Meyer gives helpful advice on navigating these pitfalls in work situations. For example, she counseled the American boss to clearly explain his style of performance reviews before beginning. "I like to acknowledge my employees' positive contributions before going on to the meat of the review, the things I need you to change." That would have given his French employee the cue to listen carefully for constructive criticism and to take it seriously.

Meyer also offers tips on giving negative feedback to those from a more indirect culture - tips she learned from a perceptive Indonesian friend who helped her deliver an unwelcome message to a respected senior colleague from Indonesia.

1. Don't give feedback to an individual in front of a group. (Even positive feedback, which may embarrass them.)

2. Blur the message. This means...
   a. Give the feedback slowly, over a period of time, so that it gradually sinks in.
   b. Use food and drink to blur an unpleasant message.
   c. Say the good and leave out the bad.
(For example, if you're reviewing four documents and two are sloppy but two are excellent, focus on what makes the latter ones great, and they'll get the hint about the sloppy ones.

After six years in Cambodia, indirect communication is still not my forte or comfort zone. When I return this fall as a teacher trainer with World Team, I expect to be working more closely with Cambodians than I did at Logos. I foresee myself re-reading and using the above tips and the rest of this book more than once.

While I know it will continue to be a learning curve for quite some time, I am encouraged by Meyer's use of a French proverb: Quand on connait sa maladie, on est à moitié guéri. "When you know your sickness, you are halfway cured." I don't always understand my culture or the assumptions I bring with me from home. But at least now I know that I have them, that they differ from others' cultures and assumptions, and that the differences matter. Along with the humility to ask questions and adapt to other people's preferences, that awareness will get me far.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


I'm not much of an arts and crafts person. Growing up, I did my fair share, but I was always the kid asking a million times, "Did I do this part right?" and staying at the table long after the other ones had gotten up to play. As an adult, it hasn't been a big priority. But recently I've had more chances to indulge/challenge myself recently in the crafts department, and it's been great! It helps that I've gotten better since childhood at laughing at myself and just having fun. It also helps that I had a 6-week winter break from grad school - I foresee a radical decrease in my crafting this spring.

My mom and I tried out a painting technique she'd seen on Pinterest, involving plants and layers of spray paint. We loved playing around with it, and it's so forgiving! Whenever we sprayed a color too thick and covered up some cool silhouettes, we could just add more layers until we liked it again. I highly recommend it for recovering perfectionists.

My friend Adrianne*, a woman of many talents, has been the inspiration for several other craft projects. She organized several of us to do a Girls' Night In with her two adorable nieces, and she brought along some molding clay. It kept us entertained for hours.

*Astute readers will recall Adrianne as the force behind the mouse in the pudding (see #2) at my Anne of Green Gables party last fall. 

Adrianne's been an impressive knitter since we both learned together in youth group, and she's branched out into knitting stuffed animals the past several years, to her nieces' great delight. They've given her some tall orders, including a mermaid! This fall she published her own Etsy pattern for a snowman. (Available for only $3.50 - I highly recommend it.) I knew I had to try it, despite my 13-year knitting hiatus. It was a bit of a learning curve, but she kindly helped me get started and gave me all the supplies, and I was so happy with how it turned out.

2003, the pinnacle of our knitting craze

The kids I nanny have been another motivation to get crafty, whether I join them or just encourage them in crafting endeavors. We did several Advent crafts and lessons from Truth in the Tinsel, though the kids’ favorite day of Advent may not have been a craft at all, but rather the Joseph obstacle course. We also visited Paint'n'Pottery. They've never been more focused!

Two front teeth were definitely on his Christmas wish list

For Caely’s 10th birthday, I spent a day with her and her good friend, and she got to pick activities from the menu below. One of the activities she chose was a scarf-dying craft kit that I came across recently when cleaning - I must have received it around age 12 and never used it. (I was pretty amazed that the dye still worked.) Their enthusiasm was infectious.


There have been hard and scary things happening in the world, the nation, even my neighborhood. Things that I'm not sure how to address on here, but that definitely deserve my attention and energy. Crafts don't replace, negate, or solve all that is broken in the world. So do they even matter? 

Andy Crouch argues that creativity is a crucial part of our vocation, a way to exercise power for good. I'm not sure knitted snowmen and dyed scarves are the ultimate means of harnessing power for the benefit of humankind. But they're not meaningless, either. I'm realizing creativity can add some pure notes to the cacophony, and I want to do that every chance I get.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Protestant work ethic and the three little pigs

Am I too busy? 

Can I do anything about it?

I don't think I'm the only one asking myself these questions. Nor is this a recent trend for me. But they've been bouncing around my mind since my sociology class studied Max Weber this fall. He's the one who came up with the phrase "Protestant ethic" in the early 20th century, and writing a paper on the topic has gotten my wheels spinning. 

Many, myself included, have beef with some of Weber's points. But other seem spot-on: namely, the tendency of those in historically Protestant nations to overvalue productivity. Weber asserted that being idle was one of the greatest sins in Protestant teachings of the 19th century: “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God […] Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins” (The Protestant Ethic, p. 104). Weber says that as Protestants' religious fervor declined over time, their worship of hard work and busyness endured.

I don't know said Protestant teachings enough to judge whether this quotation is a fair summary.  Too often, though, it describes my own attitude. I convince myself that God approves more of me when I get more done. I buy into American culture's view of busyness as a status symbol. I can find it hard to stop and focus on just one thing, especially if it's hard to quantify it or to say when I've "accomplished" it. (cough cough *prayer* cough cough) 

In our Weber unit, my sociology professor had us read an article by Benjamin Snyder, "From Vigilance to Busyness: A Neo-Weberian Approach to Clock Time." Vigilance started with Benedictine monks and involves a regular schedule of activities like contemplation or singing. Busyness came about through Protestant and Renaissance cultures. It emphasizes not just regularity but density - packing more varied activities into a given time period. The article argues that "although we often think of busyness, time pressure, and burnout as contemporary problems, they have long been at the root of clock time culture." Snyder points out that even the word "busy" evolved in meaning around 1500, from “‘concentrating on a particular activity’” to “‘constantly occupied with many things.’”

Time density has its limits. No matter how much we try to cram in, an hour can only hold so much. Believe me, I've tried. Despite the illusion that multi-tasking helps us accomplish more and “get ahead,” psychologists say that reality falls short of expectations:

Managing this constant and mounting demand often involves switching tasks or multi-tasking, and the job never quite feels done. "Multi-tasking is what makes us pressed for time," says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver,Canada. “No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity,” she adds.

In my own life, here's what I'm realizing. I am busy. Not just this year... not just this chapter... but since probably 8th grade, I've had a pretty full schedule. Why?

1. Because right now I can. I have a fairly high energy level and good health, and I enjoy being active. I've been given opportunities to do a lot of things that I like and find meaningful. Those things are temporary blessings not to be taken lightly. They are not reasons to judge others, nor are they reasons to beat myself up if those ever change. Being less busy - like when I had chronic fatigue or during Cambodia's hot season - doesn't make me less myself. Busyness does not define me. But being busy is not always a bad thing.

2. Because I undervalue margin. I don't leave enough room for the unexpected because I don't like missing out on neat opportunities. I once described a dear friend by saying, "She wouldn't want to bite off LESS than she could chew." Takes one to know one! That friend seems to be learning faster than I am that this approach to life doesn't really pay off. For one, it makes it hard to switch midstream when things come up. For another, when I stop to catch my breath (like over Christmas break), often there's a reckoning to pay in the form of a heart out of whack. I need margin, both to take care of myself, and to be available for others' unforeseen needs.

3. Because I'm addicted. I feel good when I get stuff done. When my papers are turned in, when I've made dinner for once, when I'm caught up on e-mail... let's be honest, when I've published a blog post... I want to do a happy dance. Recently, I've been quite busy and also quite happy, and it's because my efforts have generally been fruitful. But there's a danger here. If I tie my happiness to my accomplishments, then I feel a lot of fear, anger, or even depression when my success is jeopardized. I may refuse to take risks. I may get caught in the spin cycle of the comparison game. And quite frequently, I prioritize the task that's easily checked off over the one that's not. I think checking e-mail will just take a few minutes, and I end up late to meet a friend. Or I try to hem pants while watching a movie, only to realize it distracted me and spoiled my enjoyment of the movie. Or I get impatient with people who interrupt my day: "This wasn't on my mental agenda." Short term, being task-oriented feels like I'm winning at life. Long term, that's not who I want to be.

4. Because I've hunkered down in a flimsy straw house. My friend Annalisa once led a devotion for Logos staff that talked about the three little pigs. All three thought their houses would guard them from the big bad wolf, but only one house withstood the gales. Sometimes I sense that I need to stop trying, and I just refuse. "If I just stay up one more hour, I'll be able to sort all this out and be ready for tomorrow. Then I can relax." I think the task at hand will be more beneficial than sleep or time with God. Invariably, the next day I don't even need whatever it was that seemed so crucial... but I suffer for what I sacrificed. Jesus Christ is the only secure refuge. I need to change my statements from "I can start resting WHEN I get xyz done" to " I can start resting now BECAUSE of what Christ has done for me." His death and resurrection have secured my reputation and my future. Annalisa pointed out, "A 'well-earned rest' is backward thinking! We begin with Christ's finished work. We start by resting." I need to drop the fragments of straw I've been holding up to shield me, and hoof it to the sturdy brick walls down the lane.

5. Because I think it's my job. Another line Annalisa shared with us: "Christianity is like a day off, not like a day at the office." Imagine the difference, she said, between needing to sand and repaint your house's walls - and being invited to help your best friend do the same for a few hours one Saturday. When I work myself into a frenzy trying to help everyone or do my best at what I believe God has asked of me, I've forgotten the truth that this is God's work. He invites me to join Him - not because He needs my help, but because He loves me and delights in spending time with me. Unlike me, He's never dismayed or stressed out by my limitations. I don't have to join Him - I get to.

So I'm slowly moving beyond seeking to straddle the magical line between "busy enough" and "too busy." (Michael Hyatt points out that tightropes are always wobbly and balancing is more active than static anyway.) Maybe "Am I too busy?" is the wrong question. Instead, I need to ask...

How's my margin?

Should this task be my priority?

Where am I taking refuge?

Whose job is this anyway?

Sometimes I have more control of my schedule than others. Most times, I have more wiggle room than I think. But I *always* have the choice to embrace the right attitudes about how and why I fill... or empty... my time. And though these attitudes go against my grain, I have a God who very patiently and lovingly points me back to the truth: that a "Protestant work ethic" brings Him glory only when I abandon my fear and pride to take refuge in Him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

My homebody hero

I used to pity or look down on people who lived in one place their whole lives. The tedium! The claustrophobia! The sameness of all your friends! Those people don’t know what they’re missing. 

But maybe I was the one missing something. I'm realizing that staying somewhere can have less to do with laziness or fear than with faithfulness. There’s something beautiful about saying to a town and the people in it, “Forget the others - I commit to you. Not because you’re superior to all your counterparts, not because you offer me the most adventure or comfort or opportunity, but simply because I love you.” 

I’m a little bit in awe and a little bit jealous of my grandma, Irene Hoeltje, for how she’s said this with her life for 95 years and counting. Born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, to my knowledge she’s never left for longer than a week or two. And for the past nearly 20 years, she’s been in a retirement community built on the land of her grandfather and father’s farm, where she lived for years as a child. In fact, her apartment stands exactly where the farmhouse once did.

Paintings of the farmhouse and barn are prominently displayed in her living room

Faithfulness describes my grandma in more ways than one. She's technically my step-grandma, having married my mom's dad in 1983 after they were both were widowed. The two couples had been friends for decades and had attended the same Lutheran church that whole time. Although she already had three adult children and a bunch of grandchildren, she welcomed my grandpa's family as her own. Since the day I was born she's been as warm and loving a grandmother to me as anyone could hope for. She played with me, quilted for me, read all my Cambodia newsletters, and goodness knows how many hundreds of times she's prayed for me. When my grandpa had a severe stroke months after they moved in here, she devotedly loved and cared for him for two years until his death, just as she'd poured herself out for her first husband in his illness. 

That doesn't mean she never traveled. In the photo next to the barn painting, you can see her with my grandpa on a trip to Italy. My siblings and I loved their annual visits to our house in Vermont. But mostly, she stuck pretty close to home. On my trip to Peoria last month - the first in far too long - I bemoaned the fact that I was flying in and out of Chicago, three hours away, with no time to sight-see. I asked her what her favorite Chicago activities had been. Her response was, in effect, "Who wants to go way up there?" Answer: my grandpa, for the baseball games. (He would've loved seeing the Cubs win the World Series, which started days after I left.) But he was otherwise a lot like her. Another lifelong Peoria resident, he retired from the same paper company where he'd gotten his first job at age 16 to help support his struggling family. They both chose depth over breadth: loving and investing in the people around them for the long haul. 

Grandma's whole family seems to have learned from her. A cousin lives in the same retirement community, one street over. Her three children, and most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, live within 15 minutes of her. (There are exceptions: one grandson moved to the Ukraine for a while and married a woman from there, and a few are now in other states.) Many of them gather every Sunday at her apartment for lunch. When Grandpa died in 1999, Irene's granddaughter Alyssa was newlywed and moving into her first purchased home - the house where Grandpa had raised my mom. Irene's daughter Linda visits her daily to help with meals and other tasks, and Irene's sons come by frequently too. Linda and her husband Joe are equally devoted to Joe's large extended family in Peoria, and between family, colleagues, and church, they seem to be friends with the whole town. Although we all really love each other, I've never lived in the same town as any of my extended family - or the same state as most of them, for that matter - and I find that kind of close-knit family impressive.

Aunt Linda, Grandma, and me in October

Grandma remains faithful to my family, even though her own descendants surround her and she can't travel to see us anymore. During our time together, she had limited mobility, low energy, and a fair amount of joint pain. But instead of complaining, she peppered me with questions about my parents, siblings, and nephews. "I miss them," she kept saying. "I hope they can visit soon." 

I asked her about the most important things she'd learned over the years. "Be grateful. Be humble. Love people. Be faithful." She's learned those, all right. Her whole life demonstrates them.

Now that I've lived in multiple locations, and the people I love are scattered, I’m not sure I could ever be that devoted to one place. Unless I want to be heartless and cruel, it’s too late for me. I can say to Doylestown and its residents, “We go way back and you’ve been good to me. I love you and I’m going to fight to be emotionally present as long as I’m here.” I can say to Phnom Penh and its residents, “You’re my adopted home, my srok jing-jeum, and I’m willing to say no to a lot of things and people to say yes to you.” But the truth is, even if I plopped down somewhere tomorrow and never again left it for a moment, pieces of my heart are already strewn across the world. I've been on the move since before I could walk, with stints in Vermont, New York, and Munich by age 3. There's been a lot of richness to my travels, and I wouldn't trade them, but sometimes I have to stop and mourn. With limits of time and geography, there's just no way I can be there for everyone I care about, to nearly the extent that I'd like.

Quote by Miriam Adeney, image by ... Google?

That's why I envy Grandma, despite the losses she's endured. Nearly all her favorite people who are still on earth live practically in her backyard. I'm realizing that like me, she traded some good things for something she valued even more. And her choice is a beautiful one. But even if practical constraints weigh on my friendships, even if my destiny is to be more nomad than homebody, maybe I can still walk in her footsteps of faithfulness to God and to others. Maybe I can still choose to love people the very best I know how, for as long as possible, as often as possible. 

Be grateful. 

Be humble. 

Love people. 

Be faithful. 

Words to live by, whether I'm packing up again or parking for the long haul. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Life lessons from my fictional best friend

Last month, my mom was chatting with an acquaintance and told her, "Yesterday was my daughter's birthday party. She had friends over for an 'Anne of Green Gables' movie marathon." 

"Oh, fun!" the other woman replied. "How old is your daughter?" 

My mom cracked up, because the answer is not "eleven." (Note: The original birthday plan was to spend the weekend camping, but the weather had other ideas.) 

Some might say I'm a little old to be watching a children's movie. Wikipedia and I beg to differ: L.M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables was "written for all ages." And that marathon was the most fun I've had in months. 20 years into my fandom, I'm proof that Anne ages well. 

It helps that in the eight-book series... which many fans of the 1980s miniseries have sadly never read... she grows up from an 11-year-old to eventually a grandmother. We see her mellow out, learn from others, endure suffering and loss. At 30, I can relate to her in ways that eluded me at age 10 or 15. She's a more versatile companion than heroines stuck in shorter time frames. Maybe that's why Anne has influenced me more than any other fictional character. 

Here are five of my personal values I owe in part to the winsome Anne Shirley (Blythe).

1. Everyday nature is a source of endless wonder.

L.M. Montgomery's enchanting descriptions of landscapes helped Prince Edward Island become a popular tourist destination; it's certainly on my bucket list. But Anne reminds me to look for beauty right where I am. Rolling hills. Rice fields. Rainstorms. It's there, if I only have eyes to see.

"'I want to explore all those fields and lonely places anyhow. I have a conviction that there are scores of beautiful nooks that have never really been seen although they may have been looked at. We'll make friends with wind and sky and rain, and bring home the spring in our hearts.'" (Anne of Avonlea, Ch. 13)

And a scene I've known by heart for years and years: When Gilbert and Anne finally marry, he goes house hunting in a new village without her. He reports to her on the many charms of the home he's chosen. 

"'So far, good," said Anne, nodding cautious approval. 'But Gilbert... you haven't yet mentioned one very important thing. Are there trees about this house?'

'Heaps of them, oh, dryad!'

'Oh, I'm so glad! I couldn't live where there were no trees - something vital in me would starve.'" (Anne's House of Dreams, Ch. 2)

I've always felt the same way about trees. Fans debate whether Gilbert is enough of a kindred spirit to merit Anne's heart, but in my books, his "heaps-oh-dryad" response sets the bar pretty high. 

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Or to laugh at them.

"'Marilla, isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?'

'I'll warrant you'll make plenty in it," said Marilla. "I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.'

'Yes, and well I know it," admitted Anne mournfully. "But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.'

'I don't know as that's much benefit when you're always making new ones.'

'Oh, don't you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I'll be through with them. That's a very comforting thought.'" (Anne of Green Gables, Ch. 21)

A classic ENFP, Anne is infamous for making flighty mistakes and getting herself into "scrapes." At my party, my dear friend Adrianne had a surprise: she'd recreated the pudding where the mouse drowned when Anne forgot to cover it. We all about died laughing! 

My INFJ personality may be more subdued and cautious than Anne's, but I'm every bit as absent-minded, and it's nice having permission just to laugh and move on. After all, what's the alternative: being no-nonsense? 

"'That doesn't sound very attractive," laughed Anne. "I like people to have a little nonsense about them.'" (Anne of the Island, Ch. 28)

3. Every kid deserves love and belonging.

Anne is an orphan who has bounced around many homes and asylums before landing at Green Gables. The books definitely gloss over the psychological harm of Anne's affection-starved, tumultuous childhood. I once had an adopted friend who cringed at the way Marilla keeps Anne "on trial" for a while, contingent on good behavior. (It seems to be a cultural norm of the time.) I get her criticism. It's a terrible way to treat a child. But Marilla soon learns, as Matthew has always done, to love Anne unconditionally - quirks, flaws, and all. 

While Anne never goes on to adopt children*, she helps raise two young orphaned relatives (Davy and Dora) whom she fiercely loves. And Gilbert urges their daughter Rilla to rise to the occasion and raise the "war orphan" baby she finds until the baby's father returns from World War I. Though not a baby person, Rilla grows attached to little Jims, and matures quite a bit in the process. 

Anne and her family are part of the reason why I have always been drawn to kids whose families have been disrupted or unavailable, and why I am passionate about supporting adoption.

*I know Anne adopts a baby in the third movie, "Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story." Don't get me started on that movie and how much it departs from the books. Suffice it to say, it was not included in my birthday party.

4. Kindred spirits are worth hunting for, maybe even right in front of you.

"'Miss Barry was a kindred spirit after all,' Anne confided to Marilla, 'You wouldn't think so to look at her, but she is. . . Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.'" (Anne of Green Gables, Ch. 19) 

Anne has immortalized the phrase "kindred spirit," which I use all the time with friends. (Many of my friends are avid Anne fans too. Coincidence? I think not.) She also describes people like her best friend Diana Barry as "bosom friends," and in later books adopts the phrase "of the race that knows Joseph." They all refer to people who make something resound in your heart, someone with whom you connect at a deeper level. An ongoing motif with Anne is the discovery of kindred spirits in disguise. 

“Anne found it hard to believe that [Leslie Moore] was the cold, unresponsive woman she had met on the shore – this animated girl who talked and listened with the eagerness of a starved soul.” (Anne’s House of Dreams, Ch. 12)

5. Wherever you are, embrace it.

Anne ignores the small-town busybodies who tell her she's a fool to attend university and doom herself to spinsterhood. She bids farewell to friends and family and rejects the advances of Gilbert and others to spend years single, in faraway towns, teaching at various schools, fighting to have her writing published. All this in a culture where women didn't generally make those choices. 

When Marilla needs her back at the farm, Anne uncomplainingly returns from college and rolls up her sleeves, continuing her studies by late-night candlelight. Her delight in Green Gables and Marilla is sweeter than ever for all her far-flung adventures, which resume once the farm is in better shape. 

Later, when she's convinced that Gilbert really is the man for her, she pours herself into her marriage and family the way she has into all her earlier endeavors. 

In each stage, Anne has wistfulness and melodramatic moments and blue days, but her pity parties don't last long. She continues cultivating friendships, serving others, and growing as a person. 

"'Miss Stacy told me long ago that by the time I was twenty my character would be formed, for good or evil. I don't feel that it's what it should be. It's full of flaws.'

'So's everybody's," said Aunt Jamesina cheerfully. 'Mine's cracked in a hundred places. Your Miss Stacy likely meant that when you are twenty your character would have got its permanent bent in one direction or 'tother, and would go on developing in that line.'" (Anne of the Island, Ch. 10)

Anne's many influences on me are one reason she's like a dear friend. The other is that whenever I go more than a year or two without her, I just miss her. I've read all 8 books three or four times each, some closer to 10. She's always there when I need her - right there on my bookshelf, offering me whimsy and wisdom. 108 years after she first captivated readers, Anne remains a "kindred spirit" to millions, and I for one don't plan to outgrow her anytime soon.